Atwood revisits a witch hanging, an incident familiar in American history, and forces the readers to revise their understanding of the event by telling the story through the eyes of the accused. Atwood is a feminist who is deeply interested in women’s rights and in the plight of women who are held subservient in a male-run society. Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) portrays a futuristic society where the men in power control women as completely as Mary Webster’s seventeenth century Puritan society controlled her. “Half-Hanged Mary,” like much of Atwood’s other work, is a political statement.
Telling her own story and expressing her own feelings, Mary challenges many assumptions about the events she narrates. One assumption is that she is, in fact, a witch. The reader sees her as bright (she understands her situation fully), responsible (she cares for herself and others in her town), and strong (she outlasts her own hanging). Her treatment is based primarily on fear. The men fear Mary, her independence, and her powers, and they also fear their own act of violence. When she refuses to die, they fear Mary even more. The women fear connection with Mary because they know that only the slightest circumstances separate them from her: In the most basic way, they are connected because they are women and, as women, they are controlled by men. When Mary looks to her God for help, she only finds indifference. Having practiced faith, charity, and hope, she expects some compassion and understanding. Just as she is shown none from the villagers, she is shown none by God.
Though the hanging does not kill her physically, it does kill her emotionally. The woman who rises from the ground after she is cut down is, in fact, a lunatic—a madwoman. The free will she has questioned God about—a free will that society did not allow her in her first life—is now hers. As long as she stays clear of the society that shuns her, she can, and must, do as she will, using her own resources. But her resources are tremendously limited now—compare the woman struggling to stay alive in earlier stanzas with the woman eating dung in the final section. Mary Webster is, in fact, not alive, as she acknowledges near the end when she asks, “Who else has been dead twice?” Without her sanity, she has been made less than human, and the punishment of her judges is final and terrible.